In 2016, a 13-year-old girl with clear anger issues glared at a hostile studio audience. The villain in a staged daytime TV pantomime, Danielle Bregoli challenged 200 strangers to a fight with these words: “Cash me outside, how ’bout dat?”

Today, Bregoli has transformed into “Bhad Bhabie,” a renegade enfant terrible of the music industry. She signed with Atlantic Records. She got herself nominated for a 2018 Billboard Music Award as a solo rap artist. Her five-year probation sentence for car theft, drug possession, and filing a false police report was cut short after she found herself able to hire a better legal team. Recent reports suggest she’s just signed a beauty endorsement deal worth nearly $1 million. Rags to riches.

Bregoli is an example of what I’ve termed the “memeocracy,” a social media-based system that rewards people for attention-grabbing behavior rather than talent. Bregoli and those who have engineered her rise have hijacked a psychology that favors outrage over hard work.

My issue isn’t with Bregoli specifically. Having worked with plenty of similarly troubled young people as a professional advocate for looked after children, I quite like her. It takes guts to fight a studio audience, and she is making the most of what life has offered her. But are we offering her the right thing?

Bregoli’s ascension to celebrity runs counter to the messages many parents give their children: Go to school. Work hard, get good grades, and you will succeed. You can be whatever you want to be if you work hard enough.

Roman citizens gathered to watch gladiators fight to the death. Today we watch dysfunctional relationships of poor people played out on daytime TV.

A backlash has begun from those who followed all the rules and found only mediocre jobs waiting, while car-stealing teenagers seem to be doing quite well. Talk to children, and it becomes obvious that many aspire to Bhad Bhabie levels of fame. In a world defined by automation and consumerism, many young people want to become “influencers.”

And it seems we’re all too willing to help. Just as Roman citizens two millennia ago gathered to watch gladiators fight to the death, today people watch dysfunctional relationships of disadvantaged people played out on daytime TV. The medium is different, but the social implications are the same. It makes a middle-class audience feel smug and superior. It’s cheap content, easy to make, and even easier to sell.

History will, on occasion, throw up a Spartacus. Someone who captures the collective imagination and fires up the populace. Someone like Bregoli. Within a few days of her Dr. Phil appearance, video of the car-stealing, knife-wielding teenager taking on a derisive audience circled the globe. Society fluctuated between outrage and amusement. She became the poster girl for the angry youth. Thecash me outside girl.”


Her catchphrase became a household hit. Clips of her outburst were set to music. Enterprising capitalists printed it on T-shirts. Bregoli and her mother fought back, suing three companies for copyright infringement. (Quite rightly so. They own those words as much as I own the words in this article.)

Bregoli’s transformation into Bhad Bhabie says that it doesn’t matter how you behave as long as people notice you. That’s the newest message for young people. And as we stand around and watch, they’re sliding into self-destructive, narcissistic worlds of one.

It’s true that there have always been people famous for being famous. They drift down from the upper echelons of society and offer little value. Traditionally, though, you needed extraordinary wealth and breeding to be part of this club. Then, as the 21st century dawned, the perfect storm began to form the memeocracy.

Our obsession with celebrity came to television: The orchestrated semi-real existence of The Osbournes and the Kardashian family hit screens. Later, when this combined with social media, the modern “influencer” was born. The Kardashians became the de facto royal family.

Meanwhile, shows like American Idol, X-Factor, and Britain’s Got Talent created stars from hitherto unknown talents. Kelly Clarkson, Alexandra Burke, and One Direction documented their journey from obscurity to fame. Talent was still a necessity, but the narrative became an important prerequisite.

One pivotal moment, though, was when a Dutch television producer brought Big Brother to the world. In 2000, the U.K. found itself gripped by the first season of Big Brother. Most people can only remember the names of the winner (Craig) and the villain (Nasty Nick). Everyone else has since faded into obscurity.

The following decade of Big Brother would see contestants increasing in outrageousness. Reality TV moved away from wealthy socialites and into other echelons of society. In the U.K., we turned the spotlight to Essex and Newcastle to capture the antics of working-class residents. Increasingly, regular people saw the potential for their own TV careers.

By 2008, social media was further leveling the playing field. Normal people could broadcast themselves. Early YouTubers were as natural and naïve as the early Big Brother contestants. They were quickly supplanted by glossy vloggers. Today, YouTube is awash with “personalities.” They have learned that being very good or very bad is the only real way to build a following.

Getting and maintaining attention is key to success. Attention is the new currency, and to stay afloat, you must maintain a healthy flow of it in your direction. Many young people are jealous of the ability to do so. For those continually trying to “go viral,” disappointment is often their only companion.

Bhad Bhabie managed to be in the right place at the right time. She was picked up by market forces. Society didn’t have time to consider the implications of rewarding Bregoli. We just did it. Thanks to meme culture, we rewarded a teenager for her antisocial behavior. We gave impetus to the producers, PR teams, and lawyers who helped her build a career out of attention.

These people aren’t good or bad themselves — they are simply a reflection of their time.

In the wilds of memeocracy, there is no oversight. Previous generations enjoyed orchestrated prank shows that were overseen by producers. Today, the prank show has given way to “cloutlighting,” a disturbing trend that straddles a dangerous line between comedy and abuse.

Brad Holmes, who has 2.4 million Facebook followers, filmed himself coating his girlfriend’s tampon in chiles and laughing at her resulting agony. Though Holmes took down the video after critics blasted it as misogynistic and abusive, it still reached millions and was even shared by media outlets. Logan Paul’s filming of a suicide victim in Japan may have prompted backlash, but it didn’t affect his viewing figures at all. Those likes may seem harmless, but they convert directly into cold hard cash.

We know that we should ignore these people or offer them help and support with their unresolved issues. This is what a good society should do. But Bregoli, Holmes, and Paul all have an income dependent on attention, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s good or bad attention. These people aren’t good or bad themselves—they are simply a reflection of their time.

For those who have tied their economic fortunes to attention from others, the market is volatile. Traditional enterprises allow owners to walk away, but there’s no walking away from a company based on your personality. What do you build the rest of your life around when your only marketable asset is no longer marketable?

Some of those thrust into fame by the memeocracy will make it. But many won’t. When the bull markets turn bearish and their stock begins to wane, we will see a change. What do we do with a generation taught to sell themselves when nobody wants to buy anymore?

In the U.K., we are already seeing a rise in suicides among the young population. Studies have linked social media use with poor mental health, especially for teenage girls. These are consequences that should be laid squarely at our collective feet. We created and continue to perpetuate the memeocracy.

Ultimately, the music industry and memeocracy will spit out Bregoli. She is part of the dot-com boom of internet celebrity. Her volatility will keep her in the spotlight for some time, but it won’t sustain her there. She may have some talent as a musician, but she doesn’t have the staying power of someone like Ariana Grande or Beyoncé. Their fame will be maintained through the quality of their work, not via a cult of personality or conflict with other artists. Put simply, if your work is good enough, it speaks for itself.

Last year, Bregoli was filmed brawling in the street with copycat Instagram star Victoria Waldrip, aka “Woah Vicky.” The 18-year-old Waldrip gained notoriety in 2017 by claiming to be black (she says a DNA test revealed African ancestry) and making overtly racist statements. In one of her YouTube videos, she eats a spoonful of lotion. Waldrip was arrested last year on charges of assaulting a police officer. She seems to have learned from Bregoli that all attention is good attention.

This article has touched upon social media, mental health issues and suicide. If you are struggling with your mental health or having suicidal thoughts please seek out immediate therapeutic help in your local area.